The four elements

I recently watched a documentary about the history and development of chemistry. The content and presentation of this documentary was fascinating, and it included looking at alchemy and the efforts of the alchemists – these early ‘scientists’ – who were experimenting with all kinds of different substances to see what activities and combinations of substances caused material transformations to take place. The alchemists were looking to turn base metals to gold, and many perceived a spiritual as well as a physical purpose, or were simply attempting to become wealthy…

The elements in what is now called the Periodic Table as we understand them today were not yet understood, but ‘elements’ began to be discovered during the late Middle Ages. This led, along with other developments, to the dawning of the ‘scientific age’ in the late seventeenth century to what became known as the Enlightenment to following generations. During this time, previously held concepts of magical thinking or spiritual development, including astrology, became discredited. Rational ‘cause and effect’ thinking became the dominant approach to life in the western world, and any other type of thinking was scorned.

The presenter of the documentary also looked back further to the practises of the ancient Greeks and their concepts of the four elements of fire, earth, air and water. As he developed his theme, it became obvious that he had completely failed to understand what those four elements represented to the ancient Greeks. These same four elements are still used by modern astrologers today, but not in way they were presented in the programme. The presenter apparently did not understand that these four were not conceived as a kind of early forerunner of what we understand as elements today.

The definition of an element today is of a substance made entirely out of one type of atom, that cannot be broken down into a simpler substance by chemical means. We know there are more than a hundred different types. Oxygen and hydrogen are well known examples. It was pointed out that fire, earth, air and water are not substances that are composed of one type of atom. The presenter, a highly qualified, experienced and intelligent scientist, went to some pains to dismantle the Greek idea of the four elements as having been ancient misconceptions. It did not occur to him in his presentation that the concept of the word ‘element’ to the Greeks is not the same as what we mean by the word today. He was thinking purely in modern scientific terms.

What the Greeks meant, for of course they had no concept of our modern definition of an element, was that these four elements symbolically represent four major aspects of everything in the world. Their concept could be said to be a magical one, although many of their philosophers conceived of themselves in their time as rational thinkers. Rationality and science are words whose meaning has also changed over the centuries.

The concept of elements as used by astrologers today, continuing a long tradition of astrological thinking, represent qualities, symbolic rather than actual, although of course each has a tangible form. In their literal form they of course represent the necessary basic building blocks of life. A moment’s reflection will make this statement obvious.

Without fire (heat) we would not survive cold winters or be able to cook.

We need food to sustain our bodies and we need shelter from those same elements (earth).

We would not survive long without water.

And we would not survive at all without air.

These four elements had very wide ranging meanings beyond the literal. Fire has a quality of passion and energy; earth is grounded and realistic; air is about the capacity to think and communicate; water is our emotional world and relationships. They were adapted and expanded by physicians from ancient times into medieval times as ‘the four humours’, as a means of understanding personality types and the sorts of illnesses they may be subject to, as well as the type of cure.

The modern scientific view of oxygen and hydrogen and the other modern elements is that they have no meaning, crucial as they are in the composition of the universe as we currently understand it, and of course for life on this planet. The vital difference is that fire, earth, air and water have meaning. This is a very different way of thinking.

So what do the four elements actually mean, astrologically speaking?

Each element is associated with three of the twelve zodiac signs:

  • Aries, Leo and Sagittarius are fire signs.
  • Taurus, Virgo and Capricorn are earth signs.
  • Gemini, Libra and Aquarius are air signs.
  • Cancer, Scorpio and Pisces are water signs.

Assessing the elemental balance of a birth chart is an excellent way for astrologers to begin to get to know that chart, which will form part of the basis for understanding someone’s personality. Different astrologers may use more than one method to assess the elemental balance of a chart.

Many charts do not have an equal balance of the four elements in the zodiac sign distribution (though some do). The ways in which charts are ‘imbalanced’ describe an important part of each person’s individuality, which can be very complicated!

Here follows a short description of each element, as applied to those who have more than one planet in that element in their chart.

Fire

Known for dramatizing situations, fire – like its literal form – is known for restless movement and powerful energy. Fire is the spark of life that animates us, the spirit that sustains our existence and our growth. The emotions experienced by those with fire signs in their charts are hot and passionate ones of speedy reactions, quick anger and impatience to move, or to move on.

Fire is not known for patience, easy tolerance, or practicality, yet is warm and generous by nature. There is a creativity and inventiveness in this element that can be inspirational and enthusiastic, often carried away by their own brilliance and tending to sweep others up in their exciting ideas or discoveries.

Fire can exhibit qualities of arrogance or insensitivity, and fiery people love to shine, but they have a kind of child-like innocence that makes it hard for others to remain upset with them for long. They usually love life and they like people, and are quick to make amends. They bounce back from hard knocks in life with their philosophical attitudes.

Earth

Whereas fire is always busy, earth is slower, and has staying power. Earthy people do their best to finish what they start, and are valued by others for their practicality and realism. Without earth to sustain and conserve energy, tangible results for hard work and effort would not be very easily forthcoming. Appreciation of the beauties of nature, the health of the body, and the savings in the bank are all areas of interest to earth.

Those with earth signs in their charts often show affection and caring by doing things for other people, and they don’t seek the limelight – though they do enjoy acknowledgment. Earth often develops a strong set of personal values and may hold certain principles that gives a structure to their life, and they can be quite stubborn in holding onto this. Leisure for earth is frequently doing nothing – or at least nothing that requires effort. Not surprising then that others may perceive those with earthy qualities as lazy at times. But earth people are usually very willing to work to build the financial security they need, which often forms the basis for their emotional security.

Air

Air needs to breathe freely, and this element needs to communicate with others almost as much as needing to breathe! It does not matter whether that is on the internet, through social media, on the phone or in person. People are very important to those with air signs in their charts, and many an idea is aired in the company of others. Ideas and opinions may be inspired by what air hears or reads, for air is the element that truly values the capacity to think and find solutions to issues. Hours can be spent reflecting on a current interest, or wrestling with a challenging problem.

Those with air signs in their charts tend to pride themselves on the knowledge they have acquired, and seek to add to this, so are known for curiosity and an interest in many areas of life. Talking is unsurprisingly something air loves to do – debates, discussions, and even arguments hold a fascination. Quieter individuals may sometimes experience airy types as rather overwhelming as it may be hard to persuade them to stop them talking!

Water

The element of water represents the world of the emotions. Feelings and the emotional atmosphere can shift and change – even over a few minutes of time – and actual water is of course fluid and adaptable in its ability to flow around obstacles or find the smallest crack if it is not contained. If you think for a moment about the many forms water can take – from ice to flood – it is not difficult to perceive how it became associated with emotional states in all their variety.

Those with water signs in their charts are usually particularly sensitive and caring. They may also be prone to moods! Water needs quiet space and personal time when they are not constantly around others, in order to recoup their equilibrium. Watery people absorb atmospheres and often pick up on other people’s energy, which can be draining at times. Yet water is not a weak element – on the contrary, water can be immensely strong. If you think of the force of a tidal wave, this may show the power that water can command.

About the author: SUE MERLYN FAREBROTHER

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